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Fashionably Late

Honda has always marched to the beat of its own drummer—consider, for instance, how many other automakers also make snowblowers.

Honda has always marched to the beat of its own drummer—consider, for instance, how many other automakers also make snowblowers. It shouldn't be surprising then, that in a world that's gaga for sport utility vehicles, Honda currently sells more different models of snowblowers (seven) than it does SUVs (just two). Perhaps the only problem with this idiosyncrasy is that plenty of people purchase things to cope with winter weather besides snowblowers. Some (a lot) actually buy those aforementioned SUVs. Even more buy luxury SUVs, of which Honda is currently selling exactly zero. That is, until this month. Yes, over 15 years after the first leather seats were installed in a Jeep Grand Wagoneer, Honda has decided to join the rest of the world in embracing luxury-appointed 4x4s.

The 2001 Acura MDX is a mid-size (think Lexus RX300 and Mercedes ML320), but with standard seven-passenger seating. Unlike the ill-fated Isuzu Trooper-clone Acura SLX, this is a true Honda product. Which is to say that it possesses some of the characteristics—lightweight body, advanced powertrain, improved fuel economy—that you might expect in a vehicle made by the company that had the audacity to bring a gas-electric hybrid car (the Insight) to market before its first luxury SUV.

Survey Says

Honda
"This is not a hardcore off-road vehicle," says Art St. Cyr, MDX principle engineer. Nor is it yet another snowblower.

As Honda brass explain, it got a late start on the MDX because all of its resources were tied up developing the Odyssey and CR-V. So by the time Honda R&D began the MDX project, the SUV market was already fairly mature. Hindsight is 20:20, so the saying goes, thus the design team realized that most of its potential customers (think yuppies with kids, dogs, and boats) were buying SUVs more for their inclement weather and towing capability than serious off-road prowess. Further proving its astute command of the obvious, Honda R&D decided that most people don't necessarily like the conventional manners of an SUV: wallowing suspension, sloppy steering, heavy stance, etc.

So the MDX is designed, first and foremost, to handle well on-road. Driving dynamics are aided by a wide track (66.3-in. front, 66.5-in. rear) and short wheelbase (106.3-in.), while a four-wheel independent suspension—Mac struts up front, multi-link in the rear—is very car-like. This gives the MDX a ride that resembles a sportier version of its minivan sibling Odyssey. Both vehicles are based on Honda's light-truck platform and are built at Honda of Canada Manufacturing in Alliston, Ontario. Parts commonality, however, is only about 12%; nearly everything behind the front bulkhead of the MDX is different.

The MDX's body structure is also more car than truck: unibody with framed cross-members and longitudinal rails rather than traditional body-on-frame. Approximately 24% of its body panels are made from high strength steel (HSS), which reduces weight without compromising durability. (The rear subframe is also HSS, as are the bumper beams and tubular side-impact beams.) Honda R&D used CAE tools extensively in the body design, which is said to have minimized both cost and time needed for development. It also allowed improvement in some of the carry-over design. For instance, three different stiffeners in the Odyssey A-pillar were consolidated into one part in the MDX.

Also notable: the MDX carries a 0.36 Cd, matching the best-in-class Lexus RX300. Perhaps there's good reason for their first-glance similarity.

Off the Beaten Path?
The MDX's four wheel-drive system, called VTM-4, offers yet another new method of delivering power to the corners. It uses two Borg Warner electro-magnetic clutches in the rear differential to control delivery of an infinitely variable amount of torque to the rear wheels. While cruising, the MDX operates as a front-driver; the rear wheels only come into play when the front ones start slipping (as determined by inputs from the ABS wheel sensors and the engine and transmission ECUs). Under acceleration—even on dry pavement with no slippage—rear wheel torque is gradually increased to provide stability and reduce torque steer. An "unstuck" button can also be pressed to electronically lock the rear differential, apportioning maximum torque (somewhere in the neighborhood of 50%) to the rear until the vehicle gets moving.

Power is fed from a five-speed automatic to a single-speed, permanently engaged transfer case that's bolted directly to the front of the transaxle. The transfer case turns a two-piece prop shaft made from HSS; the material allows its diameter to be minimized, thereby increasing interior space and maximizing ground clearance. The cast aluminum construction of the case and differential helps keep the weight of the entire system down to only 212-lbs.—considerably lighter than most four-wheel drive systems.

While the drivetrain may not be up to Rubicon standards, it proves to be more than adequate for getting a typical SUV owner out of anything they might get into. Similarly, the 3.5-L SOHC V-6 produces generous power (240 hp @ 5,300 rpm; 245 lb-ft torque from 3,000-5,000 rpm), enough to allow it to tow boats up to 4,500 lbs. (or less aerodynamically-correct trailers to 3,500-lbs.). This power even comes with something of a bonus: fuel economy. The MDX is estimated at 17/23, another claimed best-in-class. This is largely due to minimizing the weight of the body and four-wheel-drive unit, however a dual-stage induction system and Honda's trademark VTEC Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control don't hurt here either.

While this improvement in SUV gas guzzling is far from revolutionary, there's still something to be said for evolution, especially considering that Honda's certainly not feeling any pressure from CAFE standards. My only question about the MDX is when will the hybrid version hit the market and really shake things up?